TEMPLE TERRACE — Ashley Green marveled at how loud it got Saturday afternoon at Fowler Avenue and 56th Street, with flag-waving demonstrators — some holding megaphones ― chanting their support for Palestinians while cars and trucks passing by honked in solidarity.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Green, an activist with Tampa Bay Dream Defenders and with Movement St. Pete. “Oftentimes when we protest, we’re lucky to get 40, 50, 60 people.”
This time, there were four or five times that many, united in opposition to deadly airstrikes mounted during the weekend by Israel against neighboring Gaza. Drawing a crowd in Tampa for this kind of demonstration has always proven difficult, Green said.
“Almost all of our Pro-Palestinian leaders and organizers have had their names plastered online, have received death threats, and it has created this perpetual fear in people that if they speak out for justice they will be punished,” Green said. “But no longer can we be afraid and no longer am I afraid.”
The Temple Terrace march coincided with pro-Palestinian demonstrations at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in Tampa, in Orlando, and in cities across the United States and Europe. They were touched off by conflict over the threatened eviction of several Palestinian families from the contentious Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem. Protests led to police clashes outside a mosque on a Muslim holy day.
But hostilities have escalated during the past week into the worst fighting since a devastating 2014 war between Israel and the Palestinians. Five days of mayhem have left at least 145 Palestinians dead in Gaza and 10 on the Israeli side. World leaders worked Sunday to head off a ground assault by Israel.
The Saturday marches around the world were held on Nakba Day, which marks the 1948 displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians after Israel’s declaration of independence.
After a year spent organizing Black Lives Matter protests throughout the Tampa Bay region, Green and others said they see clear similarities between their cause and that of the Palestinians. Green had grown up seeing fighting in the Gaza Strip as a complicated, centuries-old, foreign turf war.
“But as I got older it became clearer that this wasn’t complicated at all,” Green said. “The conflict in Palestine is between the occupied and the occupier, the oppressed and the oppressor. It could not be any plainer.”
Supporters of Israel in Tampa Bay and across the world reject that description, pointing to Hamas as the aggressor in the latest fighting with its continuing rapid-fire missile launches using technology developed by Iran. The attacks on Israel come as Hamas continues agitating for control of the Palestinian territories and after its political rival Fatah called off elections this month.
The Tampa demonstration was organized for a busy intersection southeast of the University of South Florida in Temple Terrace — a center of the Islamic community in Tampa Bay with its religious and educational institutions.
Protesters spilled into the streets holding up traffic as they chanted for hours to “Free Free Palestine,” but there were no altercations with police. Among those taking part were parents with children in tow and people who claimed a variety of faiths, Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.
“Most Palestinians have spent their entire lives under occupation, and most clergy, like me, have spent their entire lives staying silent,” said the Rev. Andy Oliver, senior pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg and a protest organizer. “The war crimes and this recent surge of violence against a people praying on a high holy day — women and children — is a scandal to which we must never become accustomed.”
The recent hostilities point up an enduring failure to find a home for the people of Palestine, said Imam Abdullah Jaber, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Florida chapter.
“The solution is to give the Palestinian people free governance of themselves, the pursuit of liberty, justice and freedom for themselves. That’s it.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.